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Tough Test- Equipment

Tough Test

© David Kerr 2001-2004

We look at how systems, equipment and ideas stood up to a wide range of conditions during seven months and more than 5,000NM of sailing.

The environment.

The "test bed" was our Swarbrick S111 (11.1metre) sloop and ourselves as we sailed from Sydney, up the East Coast of Australia to PNG via Cairns, then to the Louisiades, on to the Solomon Islands and finally back to Australia. The trip took place from mid April to November 2002.

The East Coast was relatively windless with strong 30+knot blows every couple of weeks. We tended to avoid marinas. However, facilities were never very far away. Once we left Cairns, we were very much on our own with virtually no external facilities for repair or replacement.

In PNG we experienced strong Trade Winds and as expected, rainfall was very low. The Solomon Islands were wetter and we had a full range of sailing conditions from light to very rough. Our worst experience was a prolonged and unforecast gale as we sailed from PNG to the Solomons. We were knocked down three times in the very large, breaking seas.

On the way home from the Solomons, we were dismasted 760NM South of Gizo, in the Coral Sea. That in itself is another story, however it was a good test of the boat and our facilities and equipment.

Equipment added for the trip.

We had prepared our boat after lessons learned from earlier trips including a recent 2,700NM cruise up the East Coast. Equipment that we purchased specially for our "tough test" trip included an Interphase Twinscope forward-looking sonar, a Waterlog tow-behind water maker, a Cruz Pro Smart regulator, a Garmin GPS76 and a three-stage water purification filter.

Raymarine Navigator 4 Software.

Oceantalk Australia kindly provided a copy of the Raymarine Navigator 4 software for test and evaluation during the trip.

Already in place.

Pastime is equipped with B&G wind, depth, speed and temperature instrumentation. We use a Cape Horn wind steering system most of the time. A Raymarine ST4000+ autopilot is used in sheltered waters and for short handed hoisting and dropping of sails; it also provides a useful cockpit display of GPS data. A Raymarine ST1000+ autopilot is linked to the wind steering so that we can use the Cape Horn while motoring, steer a compass course or use the B& G masthead wind vane rather than the mechanical unit for occasional downwind sailing in light winds. The Garmin 76 is the main GPS with a Garmin 75 in a vacuum sealed bag as backup. We have an Air Marine wind turbine, 60 watts of solar panels (with the 50 watt panel attached to the lifelines). We installed new Trojan Deep Cycle batteries before the trip. We carry 12V Powerdive diving gear while cruising. We reported on Sailmail, Rocker Stoppers and our onboard computer in previous editions of Cruising Helmsman. For ground tackle, Pastime has two CQRs. The primary rode is 60metres of chain and 60metres of nylon. As well as normal snubbers, we have two 16 metre nylon snubbers configured as a bridle from the chain back to midship cleats.

Refrigeration is provided by a Eutectic engine-driven refrigerator with a small 12V Engel (bolted to the floor) as a backup and separate freezer.

We use a Lectra San waste treatment system.

We heavily use our Foodsaver vacuum sealer when provisioning for long trips and we take it with us to seal fish and other items. We also use it to seal flares, documents, the spare GPS and engine spares (even a starter motor!)

New Ideas.

The Canadian company, Fastrac, was about to enter the Australian marketplace and kindly provided more than enough of its sail track lubricant for the whole trip as well as their universal mast track cleaner and lubricator. We purchased a new fully battened mainsail specifically for the trip and it was much tougher to raise and drop than the original partly battened sail (which we took as a spare) because of batten compression and associated friction. We were intrigued to see how Fastrac would perform.

Washing of clothes has always been a bugbear, so we purchased a 60litre kayaking barrel and attached it to the pulpit. We had successfully tried a similar idea on land when we travelled around Australia by 4WD 23 years ago. The clothes, water and biodegradable detergent are placed in the barrel and then subjected to "wash cycles" that vary from "gentle" to "extreme"!

We knew that batteries would be unobtainable in most places we visited (and this proved to be true). So, we equipped our floating 6V torches with sealed lead-acid rechargeable batteries. The torches still floated and ran for longer on one charge than an Alkaline 6V lantern battery. Commercial equivalents are starting to be available.

When we added up the number of AA batteries used by various items, it came to 45! So, we purchased 60 rechargeable Alkaline batteries. These are sold under two brand names- BIG and Grandcell. We took a 240V charger as backup and I manufactured a special 12V pulse charger as there are no 12V chargers yet on the market for rechargeable alkalines. These new batteries are quite exciting as they have the same 1.5V and the same storage capacity as conventional alkaline batteries. They can be recharged from 25 to 100 times. They can be disposed of in normal waste collections. In contrast, nickel cadmium batteries are lower voltage (1.3V), can be recharged more often and cannot be disposed of easily due to the Cadmium they contain.

We also obtained some rechargeable alkaline D cell batteries from Rayovac in the USA (only AA and AAA are currently available in Australia). These were reserved for our emergency navigation lights.

As a complement to books, we took a waterproof Sony Walkman tape player and more than 150 hours of tapes, including many "talking books". The Walkman proved to be an excellent companion for those on night watches.

How did things go?

A brief summary is provided in the box on the last page. Specific highlights and lowlights are mentioned here.

Stand out performers.

Our family voted the forward scan sonar and the Cape Horn wind vane as the two top pieces of equipment. "Flinders" the wind vane steered us effortlessly in a huge range of conditions and the clever design performed particularly well in light downwind breezes which are the Achilles heels of many wind steering systems.

Whereas the East Coast of Australia is well charted, there are parts of PNG and the Solomon Islands which are not. The scanning sonar was absolutely brilliant for assisting navigation into uncharted areas and helped us greatly on some other occasions when charts indicated that depths were safe but we found otherwise. On one occasion, we were heading into the sun in murky water and it was only the sonar that prevented us running into a reef. Of course, we would not have risked being where we were without the sonar. On another occasion, we were well off an island (in the Solomons) in what the chart said was deep water when the sonar showed reef 150metres dead ahead. The reef was otherwise invisible as there was a heavy rain squall. We would definitely have hit it.

Good performers.

Most equipment and ideas went well. The "washing machine" proved itself and as a bonus, attracted much good natured humour from the many people who were unable to discern its true function.

The Fastrac lubricant, track cleaner and lubricator worked very well. Fastrac is a special "silicone release" formulation which remained functional for about six weeks of continuous use, including frequent tropical downpours and the occasional dousing of the mast in salt water. Fastrac provided detailed instructions which were easy to follow. The cleaning device and applicator which are run up and down the track using the main halyard were simple but effective. Fastrac was also applied to the sail slugs. Before the Fastrac application, the new mainsail could not be pulled more than half way up the 17.5 metre mast, nor would it fall all the way down under its own weight. Now, an adult can pull the sail all the way up without the winch and it falls down very easily when the halyard clutch is released. We will definitely continue to use this product, which the manufacturer claims will outlast every other similar lubricant on the market.

When we were dismasted, we lost our navigation lights and relied upon battery powered lights for a week. The rechargeable alkaline D batteries were invaluable as we were able to recharge them during the day, so they were always fresh for the night.


Once we encountered consistently high temperatures and humidity, the Raymarine ST4000+ misbehaved. The autopilot function caused the boat to wander excessively and the display pages kept being lost when power was turned off. Eventually, the unit came good when we left it on for several days and then completely reset and recalibrated it. It has been fine ever since and completely redeemed itself when we were dismasted and motored using it continually for 24hrs in very poor conditions until we could shelter behind a Coral Sea reef. We think it suffered from internal condensation while we were day sailing and turned it off for a few days in between.

Poor Performers.

The Waterlog tow-behind water maker is a very ingenious idea but unfortunately it died on the way to PNG and still is not functioning properly. It provided no useable water during the entire seven month trip. Now we are back in Sydney, we have been waiting weeks for the UK-BASED manufacturer to pick it up and repair it. They claim that they can make it work to specifications. I will not bore readers with a description of our efforts over the past five months to make the water maker function. Fortunately, we were able to gather water on our canopy and from the side decks. Naturally, we did all the normal things to conserve water like pre-washing dishes in seawater and using diluted seawater for some cooking.

What we did not expect.

Our freshwater pressure pump stopped and we could not dismantle it due to corroded screws (stainless steel in Aluminium alloy). We had a manual backup pump but ordered a replacement for the electric one from Whitworths in Sydney and it was delivered within a week to Gizo in the Solomon Islands- we were impressed! Upon checking the label, we found the old one was 18yrs old and we were able to repair it upon return from our trip.

In general, a number of pumps failed including nearly new bilge and wash down pumps.

The tropical marine environment is very tough on everything. In particular, stainless steel screws in Aluminium alloys will damage the alloy far quicker than normal. It is therefore strange that a number of marine products (including some pumps and some solar panels) use no protective compound when they place stainless steel in contact with Aluminium alloys.

Our electronic charts were excellent on the Australian East Coast and in PNG, however a number of the charts for the Solomon Islands had latitude errors of up to a mile, which made them unusable for several areas (the paper charts were fine). We have notified the electronic chart suppliers.

Raymarine Raytech Navigator 4.

This is an extremely comprehensive package that runs well on modern PCs and laptops. The main function is that of an up-market computer based chart plotter. However, it has many more features than that. We had expected that a Raymarine package might be geared specifically to equipment from that manufacturer, however that is not the case and it can be interfaced to a very wide range of equipment. In our case, we added a small connector panel to our instrument panel which enabled Navigator 4 to be plugged into the GPS, one of the autopilots and the NMEA output from the B&G equipment. We found it very easy to configure and use. Because of the configurability, the package would be equally at home on a multimillion dollar motor cruiser or a cruising yacht with only a GPS. The package enables you to measure and record almost anything and not only display it on the screen but also plot it graphically in overlays onto charts, photo images, topographical maps etc. It will also obtain weather, current and other information from Internet sources (if you have access) and this can also be integrated into the displays.

There are standard setups (which can then be edited) for sailing, racing, fishing and other aquatic pursuits or you can create your own from scratch.

About the only thing that we wanted to see improved in Navigator 4 (and indeed most chart plotters and plotter software) was the ability to import and export routes and way points from/to other systems, particularly a GPS. When we are well out to sea, we do not want to run the computer (or any power hungry plotter) the whole time, but we do want cross track, bearing, distance and other information which is available from a GPS provided it is loaded with the appropriate way points. With some editing, we were able to interchange data with Navigator 4, but it was laborious. As it turns out, Navigator 4.1 has just been released (free of charge to those with 4.0) and the requested functionality has now been added, along with a number of extra features and some performance improvements. So, it seems that Raymarine is listening to its customers.


There are many things to think about before cruising to isolated areas. Redundancy and backup are important for critical systems. The tropical environment is tough on electronics and corrosion of metals is accelerated. Good planning and forethought are essential. Our trip exceeded our highest expectations and this was assisted by the fact that so many things worked well and we had a contingency for anything that failed or did not perform. We are constantly on the lookout for new ideas or innovative ways of doing things and we hope that this article will give you some ideas for your next or first cruises.

How things survived the “Tough Test”




Air Marine Wind Turbine



B&G Instruments



Cape Horn



Cruz Pro Smart regulator



Engel ‘fridge


Worked well, but became considerably less efficient in the tropics. It IS 25yrs old however!

Eutectic ‘fridge



Fastrac Sail lubricant


Worked really well- see text

Floating torches


Saved a lot in battery costs, weight and storage

Garmin GPS76



Ground Tackle


We needed the storm snubbers with 45kts in Lady Musgrave lagoon plus a couple of other times in bad conditions.

ICOM Radios



Interphase Twinscope


Particularly useful in uncharted areas



Cheap 100W inverter died and was replaced under warranty after the trip

Lectra San sewerage waste processing system


We had to replace the electrodes along the Qld Coast. Sydney supplier had them to us in 24hrs!

Powerdive diving gear


Used it to clear marine growth off the propellor and hull, inspecting anchor and chain and for pleasure

Raymarine ST1000+



Raymarine ST4000+


See text re one problem we experienced

Raymarine Raytech Navigator 4


Extremely comprehensive & configurable. We had electronic charts, but not for Navigator 4 so we could not test it for detailed navigation

Rechargeable Alkalines


Worked well on everything except an underwater camera and CD-walkman



Was able to use Australia, Brunei and Hawaii

Solar panels


We removed and Duralaced all the screws as they were corroding in the Aluminium frame

The Rig


We lost several strands of a lower shroud (windward side) when we were knocked down but the shroud survived the atrocious conditions. We were dismasted because the forestay stem fitting broke at a poor weld. Our sails (from Advantage Sails) were excellent and we really appreciated the spreader patches, particularly up the Australian Coast.

Vacuum Sealer (Foodsaver)


Used for engine spares, flares, pre-packed food and fish we caught.

“Washing machine”


Worked well, except when it was too dangerous to go to the bow! It has a tap for draining.

Water filtering (AEON Qld)


We also used chlorination in the tanks

Water resistant Walkman


Very worthwhile and very low battery drain. Fine with rechargeable alkalines.

Waterlog watermaker

A disappointment

See text

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